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"The Parson" Illustration

Dovie Reynolds

 

The dust storm picked up speed as it whipped through Davenport on this warm October day. The coach was late arriving, Julianne Morston noticed, but it was always a bit late on Saturdays. As the widow of the former parson, she thought it her duty to meet the new parson and introduce him to their lovely little town. She had only finished moving their things from the residence above the church building the day before. Of course, she couldn’t have done it so if not for the people of Davenport. Such kind souls they were. The thought of sifting through her dead husband’s things without a shoulder to lean on: it would have been more than she could bear; it was more than she could bear. Oh, stop it, Julianne! she told herself. You’re going to start crying again, and won’t that be a pretty sight for the new parson. What a welcome, indeed. She dried her eyes with the back of her hand when she realized that with all the dust flying about, her face was probably streaked. She went indoors at the general store and asked to borrow the wash basin.

            “Of course you can use the washbasin,” Marie Lauterbach said when asked. “It’s in the back room, Mrs. Morston, in case you didn’t know.”  Julianne walked with measured steps around the flour sacks and pickle barrels to the back room. It stank. That was where Marie and her husband George kept the skins that they had acquired trading with the trappers. It began to make Julianne nauseous. Just wonderful! Sad and sick, too. Won’t I be a sight? She started to cry again, as softly as she could, so that Marie or George would not hear.

            She poured water from the pitcher into the basin, then wet her handkerchief and daubed her face. In the mirror behind her, she saw the dust playing in the air, illuminated from the light of the setting sun drifting in from the uncurtained window. Then she heard the galloping hoof beats. The carriage was pulling into town, and here she was, feeling sorry for herself instead of doing her duties. She dried her face on her skirt and left the general store, giving Marie a hurried thank you as she left.

            When the carriage stopped, the chestnut team and the driver shifted back and forth nervously, but the carriage door did not open. Julianne stood and watched the carriage, transfixed. Was he in there? When the light was almost gone and she could barely see, the door swung slowly open. The parson emerged. He closed his Bible as he descended the carriage steps. “I never like to cease reading a Psalm in the middle, but in this light it is quite impossible.” His voice was very quiet, much more peaceful than Julianne had expected. He looked sickly yellow, but she assured herself that it was a trick of the low light. He’s dying, she thought, then told herself not to be silly. Death had been her constant companion lately…

            The parson cocked his head at her: he probably caught the odd look that accompanied that thought. “Are you Mrs. Morston?” he asked, a crooked smile on his face.

            “Why, yes,” Julianne answered, suddenly embarrassed.

            The man’s face showed and eerie sympathy. “I am so sorry to hear about your husband, Mrs. Morston. What a terrible tragedy.” Julianne found herself nodding as the tears welled up in her eyes. She turned away form the parson so that her would not witness this moment of weakness. “My dear,” he said, patting her arm, “do not be ashamed of your grief. Even Jesus wept.” At these words, she found herself turning around, collapsing into the parson’s arms, and weeping on his neck.

            After Julianne had composed herself, she apologized profusely, as she showed the parson to the church building and his upstairs rooms. He said he would not accept her apology because it was unnecessary. :Our Lord wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and He is our Savior, our example.” He spoke these words as he followed her up the stairs from the church to the house above. “Christ never sinned, and if He shed tears at the passing of a loved one, then it is not wrong for you to do the same.”

            “Thank you for your understanding,” Julianne said, opening the door to her former home. “You are so kind.”

            “Where are you going to be staying now, Mrs. Morston?” the parson asked as he placed his bags on the floor by the chest of drawers.

            “With the Lauterbach’s, in their rooms behind the general store, until I can find a more suitable place.”

            “You and your husband had no children?” She was perplexed at this question. Again, the look on her face must have been telling. “I meant no offense,” he added, “I was just noticing that this home has none of the scuffs of childhood.”

            “My husband and I were not fortunate enough to have children,” Julianne answered numbly, shaking her head.

            “Well, I’m certain the Lord had blessed you in other ways, Mrs. Morston. You are a strong woman, which shows on your face. Full of life, and the love of the Lord. Would you mind showing me around the church building?”

            “Thank you again,” Julianne answered, “and no, I would not mind at all.” She led him downstairs. The children’s classrooms were the closest to the stair, so she started there. “This room, just across from the stairs, is where our older children are taught.” Julianne opened the door. The chalkboard listed the twelve tribes of Israel, grouped by the wives of Jacob who had borne each one. “Our youngest students are taught in this room,” Julianne said as she opened the next door on the right. It was scattered with paper cutouts of the parable of the loaves and the fishes from last Sunday, and the book of Ruth from the week before. “Across the hall is the classroom for the middle children,” she said as they left the elementary room. This chalkboard contained the names of the children who had said the books of the Bible from memory, and the memory verse for the next week: Galatians 2:20-----“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth by the faith in me, and the son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” From this room, a door led to the main auditorium.

            The parson’s eyes flitted about the room once in the auditorium. “No crosses?” he seemingly wondered aloud.

            “My husband did not believe in displaying them,” Julianne Morston replied. “He believed that the love of God should be displayed from the heart, and that outward…” she stuttered on the word “…talismans were idolatry, plain and simple.”

            “Do not fret yourself, Mrs. Morston. I agree with your husband. And no windows? Your husband did not believe that seeing the sun is idolatry, surely?”

            “No,” Julianne laughed. “However, it does cut down that amount of outside noise that pervades one’s worship. The house is the only part of the building that has windows.”

            “I see, but one can worship in one’s house, as well.” The parson glanced at his watch. “It is late, and I am afraid I have kept you out later than I should have.” He led her to the door. “I can see myself back upstairs,” he said, and before she had time to let his words fall on her ears, he was gone, the door slammed in her face.

            Julianne was not quite sure what to think of the new parson. He was much younger than she imagined. He could not be more than thirty, but he was supposed to have preached at Red Oak fifteen years ago. Perhaps his youth, too, was a trick of the light. He must have started young. She was sure he would look his age in the morning. Besides, she thought, many men have boyish faces all their lives. Sometimes, only the gray hairs of time are the true heralds. With this thought echoing through her mind, she washed and climbed into her bed in the back room of the general store, and finally fell asleep.

            The next morning, Julianne woke, washed, and went t see how the new parson was doing before church was scheduled to start, and if he needed anything. On her way, she stopped to look at the sign in the churchyard. Most of it was the same, “Davenport Church---Visitors Welcome---Services---“ Only when she reached the next line did she notice “---Sundays 4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. ---- Wednesdays 7:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M.” These were on separate blocks of wood hung over the old message. He must have found the paint and wood in the closet, cut the boards, and hung them himself. He changed the sign last night, she thought, in the dark? Well, I suppose he had to if he were to cancel service this morning.

            When she reached the parson’s living quarters, she knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He must be gone, or asleep. If he worked on that sign after I left, he must be tired indeed. She tried the door. It was locked. Julianne, what are you doing? There is no reason for you to be spying on the new parson! She descended the stairs quietly as a mouse. When she closed the door to the first floor landing and turned around, behind her was the parson. She gave alittle yelp.

            “I am so sorry to frighten you, Mrs. Morston. I heard noises, but I did not think you would be here at this time of day.”

            It is only ten. “I came to see if you needed anything,” was her pert reply.

            “Thank you, no,” he said, with the same smile as the day before. He looked on older.

            “I noticed you changed the sign in the yard. You must have been up late.”

            “I am a night owl, I must admit,” he said with a smirk. “And a day owl. I believe no minute the Lord has made is worth wasting. ‘Early to bed and early to rise….’”

            “Is that from the Bible?” Julianne asked.

            “No, Poor Richard’s Almanac, I believe. I see that you are wondering why I changed the times of service to so late in the day.” Julianne nodded, not the least bit worried that he had read her mind. “With winter approaching, it was probably wise to save our fuel. So why not let the fuel serve the duel purpose for heat anyhow, considering that we will have forty church members in such a cozy building, but every little bit helps.”

“The building is always a bit dark during services anyhow, since it doesn’t have windows.”

            “Yes. We pay for the lack of noise with the lack of sunlight. Do you believe that a fair trade, Mrs. Morston?”

            I’m not sure, Parson. I’ve never really given it much thought.”

            “Well, there’s something new for you to think about. How did your husband die, if you don’ mind my asking?”

            “I don’t mind,” Julianne answered wistfully. “He simply wasted away…. The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it before, really.”

            “Such a shame. Was he always a sickly man?”

            “Hardly! He was one of the strongest men in Davenport--- up until the sickness.”

            The parson pondered a moment. “Did anyone else catch the sickness?”

            “No. Dr. Hughes took precautions; no one else was allowed to see him. Not even me.”

            “You weren’t allowed to see your own husband?” he asked, the eerie sympathy returning to his face.

            “But the doctor didn’t catch it?” She shook her head; hadn’t she already told him no one else had caught it? Not real bright, this parson. “He should have known it was not catching and let you see your husband.”

            “I did not question him,” Julianne said, going numb again.

            “Men of Science do not know everything, Mrs. Morston,” he said with a patronizing smile. “The only true wisdom is with the Lord.” Julianne suddenly wanted out of the church building.

            “Well, I should probably stop bothering you,” she said, trying to lighten the mood, as she turned toward the door.

            The parson smiled at her. “I do have a sermon to prepare,” he said, and his smile followed her out the door.

            The sermon that night was on Sodom and Gomorra. The parson spoke with fire in his green eyes, almost as though he had been there, Julianne thought. She sat with the Lauterbachs, the fourth pew from the back on the right. The people of Davenport thought it odd that she stared with such urgency at the new parson, since the former parson, dead not a month, had been her husband. He seemed to cast a spell on her; nay, on all the younger women of Davenport. But they did not all admire his handsome looks. Some were very frightened of him. When he spoke, they felt as though he were touching them in a way they wished not to be touched. Those who had experienced that with their fathers, brothers, or uncles swore silently that it was the same feeling. Those who had not, merely felt the unpleasantness.

            Julianne had not noticed the unpleasantness until her encounter with the parson that morning. Before, she had been too engrossed in her “duties.” His smile, as she left the church building, seemed to transform. Now, it began to take shape, right before her eyes during the sermon, she saw him as he was: his eyes were to large and he had too many teeth. And his odious smile! She was frightened of him, all at once. Then, he was looking right at her. What is he saying? By our own actions we shall be judged!” Julianne stood and stumbled toward the door. He thinks I killed my husband! she thought as she filled her lungs with the evening air after she had shut the church door. Then she ran.

            Monday morning, Mrs. Lauterbach seemed concerned about Julianne Morston. “You stormed out of church like a whirlwind. Were you sick?”

            “A little,” Julianne lied. “I felt that the room was very close and I was a tad nauseous.”

            “It’s no wonder, having to sleep with those awful skins. I’ll make George move them to the storage room on the other side of the store. Just because we are poor does not mean we must be bad hosts. George?!?” Her husband hollered “Ja!” from the back room, and she went to speak to him. Julianne continued stocking her shelf, trying not to think of the way the parson looked at her the night before. She had no idea that, across town, Heather Jones was thinking the same thing. When Mrs. Lauterbach returned, she entered the room talking.

            “Dr. Hughes came in this morning, saying that his dog was missing. Since he lives just down the way, I was wondering if you had seen her?” Julianne shook her head. “By the way, my dear, the parson sent an order for some meats. Almost every housewife in town has invited him to dine, but he refuses them all. Would you take the package to him?”

            Julianne’s heart jumped into her throat. You will have to look at him sooner or later. Might as well get it over with. She took the package from Mrs. Lauterbach, who, if she had not known better, would have mistaken Julianne’s response as looking as if she were falling in love with the new parson. Julianne made her way out the door. The sun was bright, and she tried to shield her eyes form it. Luckily, the church is only a block away.

            This time the door to the upstairs landing was locked. Julianne left the meat at the door, after knocking and trying to make a great deal of general noise so that he would not be surprise her again. She walked away from the landing door, slowly at first. By the time she made it to the outside door, she was galloping, and her heart pounded. What is the matter with you? She told herself. It is only the parson. You are being very silly, Julianne!

            Heather Jones looked out her second story window to see Mrs. Morston standing outside the church door, hands clasped to her chest, looking deathly pale. She knew that Mrs. Morston must have felt the same thing, or had the same dream she’d had. She stormed down the stairs. Heather just had to talk to Julianne Morston, though she was not quite sure why. Her mother caught her at the foot of the stairs.

            “Where are you going in such a hurry, young lady?” Deborah Jones asked, sneering, the same sneer Heather had seen a hundred times.

            “I am going to talk to Mrs. Morston,” Heather replied as pleasantly as possible over her sense of urgency.

            “Not if you have to run, you’re not. It is not ladylike to run.”

            “But I’ll miss her it I don’t run.”

            “Don’t talk back to me!” Mrs. Jones hissed. She gave Heather a smack on the cheek that sent her reeling. It’s not ladylike to hit, either, Heather thought. She had learned months ago that to talk under her breath would get her a much worse beating. Her mother was never this bad before she lost her husband, Richard; he had always managed to keep her from really hurting Heather. Now he was gone, and she had no protection. But one day, she’d be able to overpower her mother, and then.....She smiled sweetly when she turned around and answered.

            “I’m sorry, Mother. You know what’s best.”

            “I certainly do. With your father gone, I have to be a mother and father to you. You should be grateful that I teach you what is right and what is wrong. What does it say in Proverbs?”

            “’Spare the rod and spoil the child,’” Heather answered dutifully.

            “That’s right,” Deborah replied in a patronizing tone. “And you aren’t spoiled, are you?” Heather shook her head, still smiling. “And who do you have to thank?”

            “You and God, Mother.”

            “That’s right. Now come and give your mother a hug.” Heather walked cautiously into her mother’s arms, prepared for a blow. Her mother held her and then stroked her hair. Heather shivered. “Is your room cleaned, child? Cleanliness is next to Godliness, you know that.” Heather nodded. “Everything is in its place? Do not lie, child, because God will know.” She nodded again. Her mother took a handful of hair in her right hand and pulled her daughter’s face back to face her. “Then get out of my sight!” her mother hissed. “Children should be neither seen nor heard!!!”

            “Mrs. Morston!” Heather got her attention just as Julianne had mustered the strength to walk away. “Mrs. Morston!” Heather called again, just to make sure. Julianne looked around to see the Jones girl. Mrs. Morston did not look calm again, Heather noticed, until she had stepped off the church porch.

            “Hello Heather,” she said with a half-laugh. Julianne was always fond of the Jones girl, though she felt that something troubled Heather. In a motherly way, she secretly hoped the girl would confide in her, but she knew it would never happen. The Jones home was upstanding in the community, so what could possibly be wrong?

            “I need to talk to you,” Heather said, her eyes pleadingly searching Julianne’s for assistance.

            “Has something happened,” Julianne was used to helping those in need in the community as the former parson’s wife, but Heather seemed very distressed to her.

            “Not actually happened,” Heather replied with growing alarm, “but I think you are the only one who will understand.”

            Julianne’s maternal instincts started to cheer. She took each of Heather’s hands in her own. “All right, child. Come into the store----“

            “Don’t call me child!” Heather threw off Julianne’s hands.

            “I’m sorry,” Julianne was shocked.

            “And we cannot talk there. The Lauterbachs will listen.”

            “We can talk in my rooms,” Julianne assured her.

            “I’d much rather talk by the river.”

            “All right, I suppose.”  As they walked toward the river, the woman and the soon-to-be woman made conversation about the weather, and clothes, and the young men in Heather’s life. But by the bank, their tone became more serious.

            “Now, what is the matter, Heather?” Mrs. Morston asked when they had settled on the grass. Heather stared at the ground, picked up a twig and began to pull the bark off it.

            “Something is wrong. Can’t you feel it?”

            “I felt something, Heather---“

            “I know you did. I saw you. At the church.”

            “---but I thought I was being silly.”

            “We might both be.”

            “What happened to you?” Julianne asked. Only then did the girl look up.

            “I dreamt the parson killed my mother.”

            “I’m so sorry,” Julianne said, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

            “It’s alright.” Heather’s face dropped again as she replied. What she meant was: “It would be more all right than you could ever know!”

            One night, a week later, Heather woke from another strange dream to hear voices coming from her mother’s room. She sat up and tried to listen. Her mother was crying, and the other voice was saying something about atonement. She strained to hear. “It is necessary for you atonement.” She had never meant to sin, Deborah Jones said, but she had to correct the child. She was odd, she just wasn’t right, and she needed extra correction. The voice said, “Children can be bad, sometimes, but they are only to obey their parents when their parents are right with the Lord.”

            “I am a Godly woman,” Heather’s mother swore. The voices said, “Then, consider yourself a martyr.”

            Heather heard a muffled cry, and then there was silence. She wanted to know what was happening, but her limbs would not obey. After ten minutes, she managed to stand and walk to her window. She saw the Parson leaving her front porch and walking back to the church. She went to her mother’s room. Her mother lay in bed as still as death.

            “Mother?” Heather whispered, afraid that something unwanted might hear her. She whispered it again, a little louder. She walked slowly to her mother’s bedside, reaching out her hand. Deborah Jones was cold, but she moved when Heather touched her. Heather felt for a heartbeat; it was weak, but it was there. She left the room and went back to bed.

            The next morning, Heather woke around seven, dressed quietly, washed and went to get the doctor. She made sure her mother was still alive first, for she knew she could not just let her mother die, as she hoped she would, without acting the part of a concerned daughter. People might be suspicious. Dr. Hughes examined Deborah Jones carefully. “Your mother was usually healthy as a horse, Heather. What do you think happened?”

            “Mother usually wakes me at six. When I woke this morning, it was seven, so I knew something was wrong. I came in her, and she was like this.”

            “Was she all right last night?”

            “She seemed to be.” Heather rubbed the places on her arms and back where her mother had beaten her, but her mother always managed to place them where no one would see, which was rather easy with the long skirts, long sleeves, and high collars Heather wore.

            “It looks like the sickness has come back,” Dr Hughes said flatly.

            Deborah Jones died that afternoon. The funeral was two days later. The Parson sent regrets to Heather that he would have to be out of town and could not perform the ceremony, as she requested. Heather dressed tactfully in black, but few tears came. Mrs. Morston approached the girl after the final prayer, led by Dr. Hughes, at the interment.

            “I am terribly sorry, Heather,” She said, putting her arm round the girl. Heather winced. Her bruised shoulder was still tender.

            “We cannot talk here. Come to my house. We can speak after everyone leaves.”

            The funeral party, as it customary at country funerals, brought food so that the bereaved do not have to cook for a while. Most of them were older couples, most of Davenport was older couples, and they realized, after they had talked among themselves for the better part of an hour, that they had little to say to the poor girl. They left slowly, two by two, after expressing a final phrase of sympathy. Finally, Heather Jones and Julianne Morston were alone.

            “It was the parson,” Heather said, staring off into space.

            “What?” Julianne asked. “What do you mean?”

            “The parson killed my mother, just as in my dream.”

            “You don’t really think that?” Julianne knew she did. Furthermore, she knew, somehow, that it was true.

            “Have any more animals disappeared?”

            “My cat is gone. Most of my friends’ pets are gone, too.”

            “Do you think the parson killed their pets and yours?”

            “It’s possible.”

            “I don’t know. It seems far-fetched.”

            “Then why are you so afraid of him?”

            Julianne did not know what to say. The girl had her figured out. “All right, let’s go see.”

            “What do you mean?” Heather asked. Now she was frightened.

            “I mean let’s go to his house and see.”

            “Break in?”

            “It is not breaking in if one has a key. I forgot to give the parson the spare, then I had a feeling that I might need it. He is out of town.”

            Heather shrugged. “Why not?”

            Julianne and Heather entered the church without trouble. The townspeople saw, but who would think ill of a girl whose mother just died going with a friend to the church for sanctuary. Julianne unlocked the door to the landing, and they stepped inside. The building seemed very quiet, frozen in time, as if it were holding its breath. They climbed the steps as silently as they could, with their wooden heels clapping on the wooden floor, and the planks creaking with every step. Half-way up, Julianne realized that she smelled something familiar. She could not place the odor until they were almost to the top. It smells like the skins in the cooler. Julianne motioned Heather to stop on the stairs. She was not certain she wanted Heather to see what was on the inside. She turned the key in the lock slowly.

            The lock clicked. She took hold of the knob, turned it slowly to the right, and pushed the door. It had opened only six inches when she had seen all she wanted to see. She slammed it shut, pulled out the key, and they ran down the stairs. They ran down the long hall, and out of the church, never realizing that the parson was watching.

parson

            “What was in there?” Heather asked, when they were back at her home and holding a claming cup of tea.

            “Bodies.”

            “People?”

            “No. Dogs and cats. The missing pets. You were at least partially right. Did you dream about the parson killing animals, as well?”

            “Not that I remember. I have had many strange dreams since he came here.”

            “Do you remember any of the others?”

            “Only one besides the one in which he killed my mother.”

            “What was it?”

            “It was old. Hundreds of years ago. He was dressed like a monk, but he looked the same age as he is now. And there was a woman....Dark and sinister. They were in a castle, and she took him to her room.”

            Julianne blushed. “Did they say anything?”

            “He kept repeating ‘It is forbidden’ but she simply laughed and dragged him in. He did not really resist. Then, he seemed to faint. And then I’m not quite sure what happened. It looked as if she were biting him. Then I woke up.” Heather looked pleadingly at Julianne, the same look she wore outside the church. “Will you stay here with me tonight?”

            “Of course, if you want me to.” The girl rushed into Julianne’s arms. She held her and stroked her hair. Heather began to cry.

            The woman and the girl stayed together in the guest bedroom. Heather slept fitfully, and Julianne watched over her, stroking her hair and trying to calm her nightmares. At midnight, her whimpering, tossing, and turning ceased. Julianne lay down decide her, and was soon fast asleep.

            The next morning, Heather sat up in bed, smiling. Julianne awoke to see her, then looked at the Grandfather clock: five o’clock.

            “What is it?” Julianne Morston asked.

            “It is all right.”

            “What? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

            “The town,” Heather answered. “It’s all right again.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “He’s gone.”

            “The Parson? Yes, he left town yesterday and was not sure when he would come back.”

            “No, he did not leave. But now he’s gone. Come to the church. I’ll show you.” They dressed and went to the church. It seemed that no one else was awake. The sun was barely up. They knew it would be dark in the church building, so they brought candles. On one of the pews was a pile of dust, a wooden stake, and the parson’s clothes. And a note addressed to “Mrs. Julianne Morston.” Julianne opened it and read it aloud.

            “Mrs. Morston,

                        There are two reasons that I addressed this note to you. One is because you discovered my secret, and the other is because I killed your husband. The child knows something about me, as I knew something about her mother. I have lived for many years in many places, but only how it started is of concern to you. When I was young in the Lord, I committed a carnal sin, and you have seen its consequences.

                        I was warned about this woman. Those around me told me she was evil. I should have seen it. The Lord warned me about her in Proverbs 2:16-19: ‘To deliver you from the immoral woman, form the seductress who flatters with her words; who...forgets the covenant of her God. For her house leads down to death, and her paths to the dead; None who go to her return, nor do they regain the paths of life.’

                        I tried to cheat my just punishment. I tried to take only poor, dumb creatures, but my sin was too great. I try to start with the evil people, those that need to be punished. God’s words echo in my brain all the while. ‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill!’ It grows out of control inside me. It is gluttonous. Then I take anyone, faithful or fallen, good or evil. (At a time like this, I met Mr. Morston on the road, and I took his blood, and then his life.) Finally, I can kill no more, and I flee. Then it starts again.

                        This time I decided to end it. To take my life, as Judas did, is a sin against heaven, but no more than taking the lives of innocents of not-so-innocents. I trade one wretched, condemned soul, damned form the start (I, not Paul, am the chief of sinners!), so that many more might find God’s peace. This , I believe, is a fair trade.

                        Please, pray for the Lord to have mercy on my soul.”

            Julianne and Heather swept up the dust, and threw it, with the clothes and the stake, in the river. They never mentioned the note. They wanted it to appear that the parson had just left town and decided never to come back. They went home to live in Heather’s family home. She was the only heir, so there was no need of a will. No one would question her right to live there. And Julianne stayed for the rest of her life. She never knew why Heather hated her mother so, and she never asked. One needed a mother, the other wanted a daughter, and that was all either of them ever needed to know.